Most Overrated Revolutionary?

John Paul Jones. A good ship captain and tenacious fighter but an abysmally bad squadron commander and a tireless self-promoter and schemer, who was deservedly disliked by subordinates and peers and who certainly does not warrant the title “Father of the United States Navy.”

Dennis M. Conrad

 

Tough question—most of the characters are forgotten, so if we say someone is “over-rated” but is barely known, then, is he or she? John Hancock. Very popular figure in Massachusetts, not as important to the Revolution here as Samuel Adams or Josiah Quincy.

Robert J. Allison

 

All the usual suspects who have been carrying the full load of the Revolution in the traditional national narrative.

Ray Raphael

 

The most overrated Revolutionary was John Hancock. He was an airhead.

Thomas Fleming

 

I can’t fault Israel Putnam’s personal bravery and energy, but after May 1775 the man was never present for an American battlefield victory. Yet he’s one of the best known Continental generals.

J. L. Bell

 

I’ll vote for Benjamin Lincoln. He performed miserably in the South. His ill-conceived plan to strike Savannah in the May 1779 nearly led to the loss of Charleston. He showed no effective leadership in the October attack on Savannah. In 1780 he allowed the British to reach Charleston without opposition, then let South Carolina officials bully him into defending the city and lost his army as a result.

Jim Piecuch

 

Franklin is the most overrated. He was not unimportant – indeed, I think he was a very great man – but as he was abroad for years, he played a minor role in the insurgency between 1765 and 1775. Furthermore, while Franklin was popular in France, Vergennes was a realist who acted in the interest of his country. It is ludicrous to think that Franklin pulled his strings.

John E. Ferling

 

Finding someone to curse with the label of most overrated participant is difficult.  First of all, the person in question must be held in high esteem by most historians or he would hardly qualify to be considered in the category of ‘overrated’.  I am hesitant to bring out the name since those who worship at the altar of the Continental Army’s superiority over the militia are certain to cry foul, but, in truth, there is one man who I have often felt overrated in terms of his overall contribution to the revolution.  Baron von Steuben came to Valley Forge in the Spring of 1778 and helped develop a plan for training the troops and standardizing drill movements.    He remained with Washington during Monmouth and for a year following before going to Virginia with Greene where he stayed to recruit and train troops while commanding the Continental army in Virginia.  His time was a complete bust and, were it not for Washington’s timely victory at Yorktown, von Steuben would very likely have been tried for cowardice and run out of the Virginia if not all of the states.

Wayne Lynch

 

Nathan Hale. A courageous Patriot, yes, but his spying made little difference militarily – New York City fell to the British during his mission. His death did little to rally widespread Patriot support; few knew of it. And no one knows for sure if he uttered the famous line, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Daniel J. Tortora

 

Few personalities have been promoted as effectively as has poet Henry David Longfellow with Boston express rider, silversmith, and jack of many trades, Paul Revere. In this instance the brightness of retellings have cast Revere as a legendary hero. Catapulted into the limelight by Longfellow’s catchy Midnight Ride, Revere’s subsequent historical celebrity has unjustifiably cast into the shadows the very real contributions of his Sons of Liberty superiors and politically active men and women with whom he interacted. Revere’s actual contributions to the cause of American liberty and independence have been distorted ever since.

Samuel A. Forman

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14 Comments

  • This is a very interesting and informative article. I especially liked the comment about von Steuben. I definitely agree with the evaluation of Benjamin Lincoln. I am glad that Francis Marion is not here! Is there an article about the most underrated? Thanks for a great post.

  • Thanks Cathi, in Francis Marion we see a figure very well thought of who has been the subject of several books and stories through time. Even Hollywood has joined his fan club. So, I am thinking his absence from the list is a nice tribute. However, in relation to yesterday’s underrated list, I chose Elijah Clarke due to his being overshadowed by Marion and Sumpter. Not at all to cast Marion in a lesser light but to try and help some others attain equal status.

  • I vote for Patrick Henry as the most overrated. He gave a couple of moving speeches (give me liberty, or give me death), but seems to be nowhere to be found during the eight years of fighting. After the war, he surfaces again to vigorously oppose the ratification of the Constitution.

    • Henry could easily be found during the eight years of fighting. The first year, 75-76, he mobilized white Virginians, using in part the fear of a British/slave alliance, and he presided over the invasion of Cherokee country. He was the first governor of Virginia, serving the maximum three years, and after that, for a decade, he was the dominant figure in Virginia politics – and Virginia was the largest state. I will admit he is overrated for his “liberty or death’ speech. Although he did deliver a dramatic call-to-arms, the actual text of the speech was the work of William Wirt, his biographer, 42 years after-the-fact. More of that in a separate article.

  • I disagree with the placement of John Hancock on the list of “most overrated”. Most people assume that minutemen simply arose from their slumber in the wee hours of April 19, 1775 to fight the Redcoats by instinct alone at Lexington and Concord and then chase them all the way back to Boston. If you stop and think about it, it is not very likely that 2,000+ militiamen would be stirred to armed combat by nothing more than Paul Revere’s cry, “The Regulars are out!”

    The armed resistance at Lexington and Concord, and the subsequent massing of an even larger militia force to surround and in effect lay siege to Boston, was no casual affair. Concurrent with his membership in the Continental Congress, John Hancock was the president of the Massachusetts Provisional Congress (the first independent State Government among the 13 colonies). It was Hancock who authorized the readying of the militia to react with force to any incursion of the British Army into the hinterland of Massachusetts. This was a planned and calculated resistance, not some impulsive, spontaneous uprising of the people.

  • Has to be Paul Revere. Even the importance of his most famous action is questionable. He was only one of the “riders” and probably not the most significant. Being a skilled craftsman during and after the revolution hardly counts as a contribution to it.

  • Fascinating question, and terrific answers. Although Franklin’s contributions to the overall American character were substantial and well-known, I agree with John Ferling that he has probably been given the greatest overabundance of credit for the success of the Revolution itself.

    I agree, too, with Ray Raphael, that the common narrative, depicting the Revolution as being the result of a few grand actors striding heroically across the world’s stage, gives far too little credit to the millions of individual acts by unmarked individuals all across the former Colonies – and beyond – that led to our final messy, imperfect, and improbable victory over the Crown.

  • While Franklin was overrated in many ways, he filled a role that almost no one else could have in France. As John Ferling points out, Franklin was not responsible for France aiding America nor was Silas Deane (upcoming articles). However, Franklin was responsible for the alliance although it should be noted what he did was play on Vergennes antipathy to the British. The most important thing he did was play the role he had to play which endeared him to Louis XVI and the French court. That was critical in getting Louis to agree to the alliance. No one else could have done that and as Thomas Jefferson said when asked, “Is it you, Sir, who replaces Dr. Franklin?” “No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.”

  • Jefferson. I’m not belittling his draft of the Declaration or his work in France, but we’re talking overratedness. He was a terrible war governor. If he hadn’t drafted the Declaration, somebody else would have, and no one can say that it wouldn’t have been as good. (Look at what Gouverneur Morris and James Madison did with the Constitution. Even unschooled generals like Nathanael Greene were articulate and eloquent.)

  • The most recent volume of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin show just how crucial Franklin was in both the negotiations that ended the war and in establishing relationships with other European countries. Perhaps he was not as influential with Vergennes as he is traditionally portrayed to have been, but Franklin’s mere presence in France brought with it with a wave of support for the American cause, especially among elites, which seems to have had some influence on the direction of foreign policy, at least in the beginning.

    I think John Hancock is a bit overrated in some sense. Revere’s ride may not have been a total success but he did produce the single greatest piece of propaganda of the entire Revolution, his woodcut engraving of the Boston Massacre.

    I might try to be a bit controversial and say that in popular respects, it seems in recent years that John Adams is a bit overrated. No doubt he was an important figure in the pre-revolutionary resistance in Boston and in the Second Continental Congress, but recent works on Adams have portrayed him as being the sine qua non of the Revolution and that, to me, seems to be a bit more romantic than accurate.

  • I have to disagree with John Ferling–as others have said above, the role Franklin played in France during the Revolution was crucial in getting the funds and support that America needed. Additionally, that “he played a minor role in the insurgency between 1765 and 1775” is, in my eyes, a minor point. The Revolution wasn’t over in 1775, and there was still much work to be done. Franklin came over to the cause of independence later than some, but when he did, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly.

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